What: Chair of the English Department at Southwest Minnesota State University, and author of ten crime novels, including YELLOW MEDICINE, ALL THE YOUNG WARRIORS, and WORM. He likes cheap red wine and tacos. He still scoops out the cat box every week. It’s humbling.
Interview conducted by email. Some questions and answers have been edited.
I just read WORM and really dug it. It made me smile and it made me grit my teeth, but mostly it made me feel dirty—in a good way. What was the inspiration for this story? How close is the published novel to the one you set out to write?
The inspiration was my mother-in-law telling me about the oil boom in North Dakota, which I hadn’t heard too much about. At the time, I was working on a stalled idea about some blue-collar guys in Sioux Falls robbing the small, storefront “casinos” that are all over that city. But it wasn’t coming together, even though I liked the characters. So I went off to finish ONCE A WARRIOR instead, but I started researching the NoDak boom. I ended up watching hours and hours of videos on YouTube from guys who worked the fields, giving advice to people who might want to come to it—sort of a “get the real story” deal. And some filmed the job itself, especially the truck drivers. I read a bunch , too, but those videos hooked me. And I could imagine my band of casino robbers becoming oil workers instead. But at first, I considered *maybe* this was a way to continue the Billy Lafitte series…but that didn’t work either. And then, I had a heart attack at the halfway mark. After that, I felt that the book, while not especially personal, was personal to me because of what it took to get it done. I’m in great health now, got a stent and all that, but finishing that novel the summer after the attack was damned important. It turned out exactly how it should’ve, I think.
You are also the former publisher of Plots With Guns, “an online literary journal for noir & transgressive fiction”. How has being a publisher helped you grow as a writer? As a writer, what was the hardest part about declining submissions to PWG?
I think the best thing about PWG was that we started it because we didn’t see the outlets for hard-boiled and noir that we wanted, so we just made a place for stories we liked to read. And we did it online because it was cheap. Back then, around 1999, we didn’t know what was on the web. We soon discovered the great Blue Murder e-zine, and Thrilling Detective, and Judas, and Handheld Crime. Lots of innovation. I’m not going to be modest here, but I think we helped launch our own “school” of writers the same way Black Mask did with the pulps. And did it *again* when we came back after a four-year break. So I’m proud of it. I’m just too busy and too exhausted to run it anymore. [PWG is currently run by Sean O’Kane]
I was a very picky editor. VERY picky. I pretty much only published what blew me away. And I was willing to help some stories that were not quite there climb the last few steps. But the most disheartening thing was seeing how much cliche was out there. The same ol’ same ol’ same ol’ same ol’. And these writers were reveling in it. I shook my head at just how typical it was, or how easy it was, to hack away with some style and watch it get rejected at PWG, but then go on to get published on some other e-zine. Ugh. But in the end, I think we’ve got a solid gold archive. I’m pretty pissed that PWG stories and authors really got overlooked by the awards and the year-end anthos. We had one or two in BEST AMERICAN, and a good number of runners-up, but stories I thought were amazing somehow ended up sniffed at. Fuck that noise.
You have also published your own short fiction with a variety of literary magazines and websites. What do you get from writing short stories that you don’t get from writing novels? Have any of your short stories turned into novels?
The truth is that I really don’t get anything out of writing short stories anymore. I stopped doing it. I prefer writing novels, and I’ve given up on a good dozen or so short stories in the last ten years because they bored me and I just couldn’t imagine spending the time to write them. It takes me a long time to write one, anyway, because I just don’t feel them the same way as novels. I pitter-patter on them for a month or two. In grad school, we had to write them faster, and I was able to do that, but even then many of them took months of piecing together before they made it to workshop. But really, once the novels got going, that’s what I preferred working on.
But early on, some short stories helped form my first novel, PSYCHOSOMATIC. I published a couple in BLUE MURDER and maybe one in HANDHELD CRIME, and they ended up being similar enough that I could make a novel from that beginning. One of them got underway because my buddy Victor Gischler and I were at a bar with other grad school friends, getting into a bit of the drink, when Victor got inspired, wrote something on a napkin and shoved it across to a friend. “There’s the first line of your next story.” But the friend said no, so he gave it to me. I shrugged and said, sure, and after many more drinks, I went back home, typed it up, and wrote most of the first page that night. I liked it and kept going. So the first line of PSYCHOSOMATIC is actually by Victor Gischler.
After that, all the novels are novels.
In a blog post from earlier this year you stated that you might be done doing readings. What was the impetus for that decision? Has your opinion changed or evolved? Has anybody talked you into doing a reading since then?
I was talked into doing a reading for this July, actually. A Noir at the Bar, which are my faves, anyway. They said “Would you like—” and I went “YES! But I want free food.” So I hope I get free food.
As a writing program alum and professor of English, I’ve sat through countless readings, and most of them suck. Most of them suck because the writers don’t want to perform. Instead, they want to mealy-mouth their way through their work without looking at the audience. Instead of giving the type of reading they would love to see/hear, they just expect us to “respect” their suckiness and think the words on the page are the things that matter most. But in a live reading, they DON’T. What matters is making me remember you and want to read your stuff. A live reading is never going to be the same experience as reading to yourself in your head. That’s a fucking movie going on up there. You are one person on a stage and you’re reading in a boring voice (or, worse, “poet voice”).
Look, I’m going to get in trouble for this…but I participated in 3 MINUTES OF TERROR at Noircon, which should’ve been rapid-fire awesome from the word go. It should have been dangerous and loud and just one-after-the-next people getting in trouble over time and reading in a way to FORCE your attention…but even in this, I think I was the only one who went over (on purpose, to get thrown off). I was the only one who got loud. The others, they had to explain what they were going to read, and in many cases, it was boring. Out of 21 people, about 5 of them really knew how to make me remember them. The horror writers have really got one over on crime writers when it comes to performance.
Also, after giving a fucking fantastic reading from XXX SHAMUS [published under a pseudonym by Broken River Books] at Boneshaker Books during AWP, which everyone seemed to love, afterwards, I felt like no one gave a shit. No one bought my book. Not one. So….why? Why do this? Why give and give and give when all the other writers end up selling out of their books and mine just sit there?
Yeah, I still get bitter, I still get pissy, even though I’m actually very happy with the writing I’m doing and the indie publishers I’m working with. I just still feel this weird mix of attention-whore and shy guy. I want people to read my books because my reading was good. And I want to buy books from people who do awesome readings.
Anyway…when I feel the need, I’ll do a reading. And I’ll give it my all. Even if the theatrics bomb, I’m still going to do that rather than go for dull. And I will occasionally show up at conferences, but I don’t like them that much. I show up for friends and readers, but not for the fucking panels on noir that ask the same question every year (“What *is* Noir?”) even though the audience is composed of people who read the fuck out of it and should know better. Seriously, I think they just like making up cutesy new definitions to hear themselves be clever, and because they think repeating Eddie Muller’s superior definition of noir every year is funny. Well, tell the same joke enough, right? Eddie nailed it. Why do we keep asking?
You are also the Chair of English at Southwest Minnesota State University. Have many of the students in the program read your books? What is some of the best feedback that students have given you about your writing?
No clue how many of them read me, and I kind of don’t want them to, but I kinda do. I don’t like to talk about my work with them that much. I do like to talk about some craft experiences I’ve had, or some business experiences, or trying to encourage them to perform at readings, but I just feel weird talking about my books with them. And I don’t think any of them have ever given me advice or feedback. I know some of them who read the books and like them, but nothing much beyond that. And that’s okay. I mean, think of it this way: I know a shit-ton of writers, and the ones I get along best with, the ones I talk to the most, in many cases, those are the ones I don’t read much of. And I think the vice-versa is true. I mean, my closest friends, I’ve read everything from grad school and short stories and novels and shopping lists and constant emails, but I don’t like to just talk about books and writers all the fucking time. Although it is true that my closest writer friends and I talk about the *business/agent/publisher* side of it all the time, because that’s the part that just slays us. We’ll never understand it.
Nope. Same advice: read a shit-ton of it. Read the short stories in zines, read your fave novelists, read the hot new novelists, read the literary scene. READ because you are never going to invent the fucking Wheel 2.0 by accident. And grow a thick skin for criticism, but remember the point of criticism is to help you get better. Ignore it all and you’re an idiot. Accept it all and you’re spineless. Both ways, the writing suffers. So read until you’re ready, then write a bunch of shit until you’re ready to submit, then grit your teeth and send out those submissions until someone bites. I’ve got over a thousand rejections. I kept a log of story submissions until I was in the 900s and then stopped. I had 27 rejections for my first novel before sending it to Pointblank, a very small publisher. I had agents tell me THE DRUMMER was poison. I still found a home for it with Two Dollar Radio. They loved it. Anyway, persistence and repetition, that will get you published. Talent will help. LUCK will get you published well. I’ve had bad luck, but the rest, I’ve got.
Jim Thompson is often brought up in association with your writing (high praise). Who would you consider to be some of your biggest influences as a writer? What books have you re-read the most over the years? Why?
I love that you had to tack “high praise” on there, as if Thompson might mean “shitty third-rate prose” or something. I don’t re-read a lot because I want to read new stuff all the time. But I guess I often go back to some openings or passages that help me sort of out problems. Richard Price isn’t exactly an influence, but he’s a monster and I re-read the opening to LUSH LIFE a lot. His stuff is amazing. SAMARITAN is just the best.
The things that got me revved up and going—Flannery O’Conner, when I was a Pentecostal trying to write, showed me how to write about faith in a way that matched my sensibilities more than the whitewashed shit many “Christian” writers were doing. And then, I got out of the church, yes, oh yes I did.
Three things hit me at once. I read James Ellroy’s WHITE JAZZ with a dropped jaw. I didn’t know you could DO that in crime fiction. Then George Pelecanos’s THE BIG BLOWDOWN, which floored me (I guess that was 1996), and seeing PULP FICTION in the theater, middle of the afternoon, alone. Those three toxic juices mixed together and made me say “I’m going to be a crime novelist absolutely, no shit.” I’d already loved crime fiction for years, but that really zipped it shut for me. No more doubt.
Others: Chester Himes and James Crumley, who are both insane. I wanted to write insane things. I wanted the style to pop off the page like art. James Lee Burke, since I’m from the South, just haunts the hell out of my stuff. I could go one, but those seeds are enough for a wild fucking garden, agreed?
ALL THE YOUNG WARRIORS. I think this is the one that *should* be made into a movie. I think it’s my most serious book, probably the best and closest to a mainstream thriller I’ve ever written, but still nuts. It’s the least “cult” book I’ve done, but it’s also 100% me. So that one is the introduction, I think.
It’s also the one that breaks my heart, business-wise. My agent thought this book was so good, it would go to auction in NYC. Instead, we got shitty rejections. We had one editor very interested, who wanted some changes, and I said I’d be happy to make the changes if they wanted it. Weeks later, the guy came back and said they couldn’t take it. I would need to make the changes first, then we would see. Both my agent and I said “fuck that”, and it really hurt. After all those NOs for THIS book, which is a fucking monster of a book, I had to turn away from the Big 5 NYC scene. I couldn’t take that bullshit anymore.
What are your publishing plans for the rest of 2015 and 2016?
I just finished the 4th Billy Lafitte book, and I’m waiting to hear back from the publisher to see if they’re up to put it out. Crossing fingers. I’m working on something that’s most likely a standalone, set in the Duluth area, which is my favorite place in the world to be. It feels like a “big” book to me, but what do I know, right? If this comes together correctly, it’s going to be pretty damned good. I hope, I hope.
I also have the 5th Lafitte mapped out, so that’s going to happen after I’m done with the current book. And then, that surviving character from WORM will get his own story. That one has got me jazzed, I tell you.
The plans are now to have Blasted Heath publish my ebooks, and Down & Out Books publish my paperbacks. D&O also took my backlist for paperbacks, and we’re trickling those out. Of course, plans can change. I just don’t plan on going back to NYC, hat in hand, begging for a read. Fuck those assclowns. If they want me, they can come to me. In the meantime, indie publishers are the best.
S.W. Lauden is a writer and drummer living in Los Angeles. His short fiction has been accepted for publication by Out of the Gutter, Criminal Element, Dark Corners, Akashic Books, Spelk Fiction, Shotgun Honey and Crimespree Magazine. His debut novel, BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION, will be published in 2015. His novella, CROSSWISE, will be published by Down & Out Books in 2016.